Devotees of traditional Irish music and culture look forward to the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival every year. It’s an exhaustive three-day affair, with concerts by world-class musicians, workshops, dance, crafts, and much more.
The festival always falls in early September, filling the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center (the Irish Center) in Mount Airy with eager and enthusiastic fans.
The coronavirus pandemic renders it impossible to converge on the Irish Center this year, of course. The center has been closed since March. All of which left the Ceili Group Festival in a state of flux. How could the festival possibly go on?
Easy—or perhaps not so easily—the festival will happen as planned, but virtually. And in some ways, this might be the biggest and most vibrant festival ever.
Irish dancers and musicians will have no trouble remembering Muriel Prickitt, who passed away at age 87 on June 7 at Samaritan Hospice in Voorhees, N.J ., following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She was simply everywhere and had a hand in virtually everything relating to Irish music and dance.
An exquisite set dancer and legendarily fast accordion player, this force of nature was known by all. She is mourned—and celebrated—by friends and relations almost past counting.
One of those who honors her memory is Gerry Buckley, of Ardagh in County Limerick, Ireland. Buckley was a founding member of the Delaware Valley chapter of Irish music, dance and cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In 1989, the newly wed Gerry and wife Fiona moved to Voorhees, N.J., where they met Muriel Prickitt through the set dance community.
“My wife was a set dancer before she moved over,” Buckley recalls. “She was looking for someplace where she could go set dancing, and she met Muriel and (Prickitt’s companion) Tom Quinn. I forget where they actually met, but they got to talking and Muriel mentioned that she was going for set dance lessons in Jenkintown. She said, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and that was it.”
Many were introduced to the Philadelphia Ceili Group and its festival through dance.
One of those was Marian McGill McFeeters. Over time, though, she says, the number of dancers drawn to the Ceili Group has dwindled.
After the last festival, Ceili Group board members decided it was time to do something about that. The answer: a Ceili Og, or young ceili, to be held December 8 at the Philadelphia Irish Center. Kids will be under the tutelage of longtime dance instructor Rosemarie Timoney.
“Bringing children to the festival doesn’t seem to be sparking any interest in the Irish culture,” McFeeters explains. “For them, the festival hasn’t been as exciting. It seemed to have been pushed to the wayside. And we asked ourselves … how can we bring it back?”
The 2019 Philadelphia Ceili Group Irish Traditional Music & Dance Festival is over, but what a packed, fun-filled festival it was.
We showed you the Thursday night singers night last week, but that was just the beginning of a long weekend of tunes, high stepping, and workshops on how to do everything from play tin whistle to learn a bit of the Irish language to plumb the depths of your Irish heritage.
There was a dance exhibition by the Temple University Dance Team (go Owls!), along with a small orchestra of musicians from the area’s many traditional Irish music sessions, and a superb, intimate concert by piper Ivan Goff and fiddler Katie Linnane. There was a children’s story time, St. Brigid’s cross making, face painting, a hall full of Celtic and Irish vendors, and the kitchen kept on cranking out chow that had people going back for more.
If you were up for a pint or two, that was there, too.
Then, of course, there was the Saturday night finale concert in the ballroom, featuring singer Donie Carroll and Tony DeMarco and his band, the Atlantic Wave.
We have plenty of pictures, courtesy of Denise Foley and Jeff Meade.
The Philadelphia Ceili Group kicked off the 45th Annual Festival with its time-honored tradition of Singers Night. Hosted by Terry Kane (one half of the popular Jameson Sisters) and dedicated to the late Frank Malley, who was a driving force behind both Singers Night and the Festival itself, last night also brought poignant tributes to other beloved Irish Philadelphia musicians who have recently passed away.
The late Eugene O’Donnell, Kitty Kelly-Albrecht and Eugenia Brennan were all at the forefront throughout the evening, remembered in favorite songs and personal stories. Among the performers who took the stage were Ellen Tepper (the other half of the Jameson sisters) on the harp, Matt Ward, Rosaleen McGill, Jim McGill, Steve Stanislaw, John Handy, Kathleen Warren, Don Simon, Seamus Carmichael, Don Gill, Trish Callahan and Mike Albrecht.
Jeff took some photos and I got some videos. So, if you couldn’t be there in person, enjoy! And join us for the rest of the weekend; tonight’s Rambling House hosted by the River Drivers and the Ceili Dance with the McGillians & Friends starts at 8 p.m., and tomorrow’s day of concerts and activities begins at 11 a.m. and continues throughout the day and evening. For more information, check out the Philadelphia Ceili Group website.
Rosaleen McGill has been volunteering for the Philadelphia Ceili Group Traditional Music & Dance Festival since she was 8 or 9 years old. “It was a great tradition in which to grow up. It felt like being raised by a village. And people were always excited to tell me about their instrument or try to teach me a few words of Gaelic or how to make a St. Brigid’s Cross. There was always so much to get involved in and a beautiful range of ages.”
Now, here she is in her early 30s, and it never gets tired. Obviously not, because she’s on the board of the Ceili Group.
Just as obviously, the festival holds an incredible amount of appeal for her—and, she suggests, that’s as it should be, not just for her, but for anyone even the least bit interested in their Irish heritage and culture.
This year’s festival is certainly no exception.
“It’s a unique showcase of Irish culture,” McGill says. “It’s nice to have a culture all your own to dive deep into and examine the traditions and language and stories and the instruments that we have created, and not just celebrate the history, but all facets.”
The world of Irish music and dance is mourning the passing of the supremely gifted fiddler Eugene O’Donnell. News of his death came Friday, June 28, from his longtime musical partner, multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Mick Moloney.
In the Philadelphia area, he is best known for that partnership. He was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Ceili Group.
As a fiddler, he was renowned for his mastery of slow airs—although he certainly had a broad repertoire—but for many in this region, he was also known as one of the greatest step dancers ever to have taken to the floor.
According to Compass Records, for which he recorded, O’Donnell “began Irish dancing at the age of three and was the first Irish dancer ever to dance on television in London at the age of 12, all the while playing and perfecting Derry-style Irish fiddling. As a teen, O’Donnell won an unprecedented five consecutive All-Ireland dancing championships.”
O’Donnell arrived in Philadelphia from Derry in 1957. From there, it didn’t take long for him to begin sharing his many gifts.
Many recall him for his superb musical skills, but they also remember him as one of the finest, most inventive, and occasionally the most exacting of dance instructors.
As Eamon Murray pointed out from the stage in the Ballroom at the Irish Center last night, a lot has changed in the 10 years since Beoga last played here. But the most important thing hasn’t changed: Murray, Liam Bradley, Niamh Dunne, Seán Óg Graham and Damien McKee are still Beoga and still know how to bewitch their audience.
It’s a pretty mean feat to bring 200 people out to listen to trad music on a Thursday night in mid-May with less than a month’s notice, but that is exactly what went down at the concert brought to you by the Philadelphia Ceili Group and the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center last night.